Tuesday, May 19, 2020
May 19, 2020: LibraryStudying: The Boston Public Library
[On May 23rd, 1895, the project which would become the New York Public Library was launched. So for the 125th anniversary, I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of libraries and library contexts, leading up to a special post on the NYPL!]
On three distinct but interconnected influences on the development of the historic public library.
1) A French Ventriloquist: It would be difficult for me to improve on the surprise and delight offered by the following sentence from that hyperlinked BPL history, so I won’t try to do so: “In 1839, French ventriloquist Nicholas Marie Alexandre Vattemare became the original advocate for a public library in Boston when he proposed the idea of a book and prints exchange between American and French libraries.” Vattemare was apparently such a prominent and talented ventriloquist that no less a literary giant than Sir Walter Scott wrote an 1824 epigram about him, calling him “Alexandre and Co.” for his ability to conjure multiple voices. But it was through his foundational role in developing the concept of inter-library loan that Vattemare truly helped so many voices travel around the world; and while it took about a decade for his idea to take hold in Boston, it’s so pitch-perfect that a Frenchman helped create this vital American space.
2) A New York Millionaire: While Boston luminaries like Harvard professor George Ticknor and Mayor Josiah Quincy likewise supported creating a public library, it unsurprisingly took the city’s rivalry with New York to push the concept forward. When German American businessman and real estate mogul John Jacob Astor died in March 1848, he left a significant part ($400,000) of his sizable fortune to New York City in the hopes of helping establish a public library. I’ve always had the sense that NYC doesn’t much care about what Boston does or thinks (or at least does a good job pretending not to), but it’s difficult to overstate how much the opposite is not the case: few influences drive Bostonians more consistently and thoroughly than a desire to beat New York (and not just in sports). I can’t say for sure whether Astor’s death and donation directly influenced the BPL, but I do know that the Massachusetts General Court passed the initial legislation to fund such a public library in that same month of March 1848. A fun example of that enduring Boston-NYC connection in any case!
3) The Boston Cosmopolitans: The BPL occupied a couple different locations over its first few decades: a Reading Room in a former schoolhouse on Mason Street from 1854-1858; and then beginning in 1858 a building of its own on Boylston Street. By the 1870s that building was too small for the library’s growing collection, and in 1880 the state legislature authorized the construction of a new building at the city’s prominent Copley Square. In 1887 the architectural firm of McKim, Mead, & White were chosen to design the new building, and Charles McKim would work closely with sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and other artists to plan the building’s decorations. Saint-Gaudens was part of that cohort of late 19th century Bostonian and American artists and activists who came to be known as the Cosmopolitans; as I detailed in that post, it’s easy and not entirely wrong to accuse that community of elitism. But I argued there (referencing my friend Mark Rennella’s book) for the democratizing goals of much of their work and efforts, and that word certainly describes their contributions to and support for the Boston Public Library.
Next library tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on the BPL, or other libraries you’d highlight/celebrate?